Thursday, 18 May 2017

On "King Charles III" by Mike Bartlett (2015)


I first heard about King Charles III in 2014, like everybody else, when it was suddenly the hottest play in London, but I was familiar with Mike Bartlett's work a little earlier than that, though only the scripts for 13 and Earthquakes in London. He's a good playwright, part of why I was so chuffed he was one of the writers to contribute to Doctor Who Season 36 (Series 10. The one airing in 2017*). But I never got round to actually seeing this play, so it was with much delight that I heard a 90-minute version would be airing on BBC One. The passing of Tim Pigott-Smith not long before the broadcast cast a certain pall over it, but public calls for a posthumous BAFTA are already making waves. And rightly so; Pigott-Smith is remarkable here. No dead-ringer for Charles (not that that matters to my eyes, anyway), he makes up for it with a polished performance that gets the occasional tone of voice, the mannerisms, just right - and more importantly, given that this is of course a fictional Charles, a performance that sells exactly what Bartlett's script is doing.

King Charles III is, as everybody knows, a modern playwright "doing Shakespeare". In one sense this means that built into the work is an inherent paucity of ambition bound up with imitating somebody else - Bartlett is ruled by a necessity for theatricality, a need to balance court scenes with those of the mob, to provide iambic pentameter when he is clearly more at home with naturalistic dialogue (he's a playwright, not a poet; Shakespeare was both). Yet the play is nonetheless terribly ambitious, at least in part due to the fact that very few modern playwrights do "do Shakespeare" anymore; an entire play in verse is almost unheard of. Simply to return to that art form is laudable, even if it works better in some scenes than it does in others. And that's before we even get started on the intriguing "future historical" aspect.

Take this - "My life / has been / a lin- / gering / for the throne", one of Charles' earliest lines. The rhythm of the iambic pentameter breaks towards the end of the line for the two unstressed syllables "for" and "the", forcing an actor reciting it aloud to, well, linger over the word "lingering" in order to give "for the throne" its desired impact. It's a terribly well-judged bit of verse, relying exactly on the way Shakespeare plays loose with the rules of iambic pentameter when he needs to. Then there's the play's funniest line, as Charles proffers tea to a Prime Minister: "shall I be mother?" It's comic there, but we don't even need to hear it again, later in the play, in a more insecure or fatalist or anguished tone of voice, to know that it's the question resounding through Charles' head as his situation grows more desperate - shall he be [like his] mother, with her long and happy reign, or shall he not? The occasional scene-ending couplet, again evoking Shakespeare, works well too ("without my name and spirit I am dust / I do not what I want, but what I must"), and Charles' speech in parliament is marvellous ("I am an Albion oak... my cells and organs constitute the land"). Then there's the neologisms (the modern world is "Thatcherated, Reaganised"). Yes, on a technical level Bartlett must be applauded. He's no Shakespeare, but any playwright would be happy with a solid place in the Second Eleven, I should think.

It's not just the verse that resembles Shakespeare, though. Bartlett gives us a king whose grip on power and indeed reality is weakening (Lear), a young prince who is at home with the common people but eventually has to turn his back on them (Prince Hal), and an ambitious wife urging her husband on (Lady Macbeth), all wrapped up in scenarios just different enough to feel like people of their own and not mere carbon copies, though all the while wearing their influences on their sleeves. The drama of the power struggles for the British crown, of constitutional crisis (a stock phrase one must surely deploy even in countries without a constitution!), is effectively managed and ramped up over the course of the 90 minutes, beginning with a law Charles refuses to sign - a law muzzling the freedom of the press - and spiralling out of control from there. While we are likely to sympathise with Charles on this particular issue (muzzling the press is probably never a good idea, no matter how much I may despise most of them), it stings to recognise that the idealistic old man is in the wrong, and that the schemes of his son and daughter-in-law are, well, fair enough. The accession to the throne of King William V and his Queen Catherine is thus a delightful ambiguous ending note: probably best for Future-Britain, but tinged with a certain loss and melancholia and fear at what comes next.

It's tight, pacey stuff, this abridged version - uniformly well-acted, and well shot by Rupert Goold. Is Diana's ghost terribly necessary? Not really. But unlike the Daily Mail, I'm not one to cry "blasphemy"; yes, the play feels a little uneasy or even uncomfortable at times, if only because it's a play about people who are still alive, but it's not just that (otherwise I'd feel the same about The Queen). It's about such people's mistakes in the future. It must be a tremendously odd sensation for the Royal Family, if they sat down to watch this as they may well have done, to see speculative fiction about their future frailties and squabbles on the screen for all the land to see. Still, the best drama goes to some slightly odd and uncomfortable places, and I think Bartlett and the BBC should be applauded for this, not least airing it in this most toxic and jingoistic of years. My natural inclinations are, I suspect, a touch more anti-monarchist than Bartlett's, though he was graceful enough to concede that, if his heart is monarchist, his head is nonetheless republican; I'd have probably liked more of a happy ending for Jess, Harry's down-to-earth, Che-Guevara-loving belle, but there's something that rings truer about the more unpleasant, classist knock she receives in the denouement.

A strong showing all told. 8/10.

*Bartlett's episode, Knock Knock, was a solid though by no means exceptional outing, full of horror movie tropes and lifted by a toweringly good performance by guest star David Suchet. I'm glad he got to write for the show, though (he's a huge fanboy), and hope he was happy with the end product.

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